Making sense of the Denver Nuggets

Making sense of the Denver Nuggets

If this year’s NBA London game taught us anything, it’s that the future could be bright for the Denver Nuggets.

As the first Western Conference team ever to participate in the NBA’s Global Games in London, the young Nuggets caused a huge upset, blowing out the superior Indiana Pacers 140-112.

Going into the game the Nuggets held a 13-23 record that reflects the struggles they’ve encountered this season. STILL rebuilding from that Carmelo Anthony trade (which happened back in 2011, believe it or not), the Nuggets – now a weird blend of savvy veterans and talented youngsters – are struggling to establish a new identity.

Still, they have succeeded in drafting some nice pieces in the past few years, and if Thursday’s game is anything to go by, they could be a trade or two away from becoming a competitive outfit in the West.

Who could go?

Danillo Gallinari, for instance, has been linked to a number of different teams, and has a $16 million player option awaiting him this summer.

Although he’s been the team’s most prolific scorer for the past couple of years (he’s averaging 17.1 points per game this year, and logged 18 points in 30 minutes on Thursday), he could quite easily opt to walk away from Denver this summer in the hope in of landing a bigger, fatter, longer deal elsewhere.

After all, Gallinari – like a lot of the other veteran pieces of this roster – should not feature in the team’s long-term plans. Right now the focus should be on the young core, comprising Nikola Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Malik Beasley et al.

While a team like Denver certainly needs veteran pieces to succeed, they’re set to pay Kenneth Faried (27) a guaranteed $38 million over the next three years, Wilson Chandler (29) $36,000 over the same period, and Darrell Arthur (28) $15 million over the next two.

They do have a number of team-friendly deals on the books too (Jameer Nelson is a decent back-up point guard option set to earn $9 million over the next two years, Will Barton will make $7 million over the same period, and Mike Miller $3.5 million), but Gallinari, Faried, Chandler and Arthur are the ones they should be focusing on for now.

Faried and Arthur are considerable concerns, as neither is particularly productive offensively (the former contributes 9.1 points per game, while the latter adds 5.9). And given both the size and length of their contracts it’s unlikely that Denver will find any takers for either.

Much easier to move though will be the aforementioned Gallinari and Chandler (who’s averaging 16.4 points per game this year, while shooting 45 percent from the field). Chandler’s deal is especially appealing, as he’s earning pre-TV deal dollars on a contract that’s set to run until 2019.

While that, coupled with his productivity, may be reason enough for the Nuggets to try and keep Chandler around, they could just as easily attempt to leverage him for picks, assets, or for the purposes of getting some of the less appealing deals, just mentioned, off the books.

It’s probably safe to add Jusuf Nurkic to the list of spare parts too, as since his fellow big-man Nikola Jokic broke out, the Bosnian’s been consigned to the bench. On Thursday, for instance, he played just 7 minutes, logging 3 points and 2 rebounds in the shadow of his Serbian counterpart, who led all players in scoring with 22 points, and also added 10 rebounds, 7 assists, a steal and a block in just thirty minutes on the floor.

With that kind of productivity – not to mention his ability to stretch the floor (in Thursday’s game he made 2-of-3 from deep), and his proficiency from the free throw line (6-of-6 against the Pacers) – Jokic is set to be the lynchpin of all Denver’s future endeavours. He is, after all, a highly-skilled big man who shoots well, rebounds well, and passes the ball beautifully – what’s not to like?!

Nurkic on the other hand is an old school banger, who’s solid in the low post and is averaging 9.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. He’s by no means a bad player, he just doesn’t have a place on a roster that also features a superior version of himself that’s better-suited to the modern game.

Still, as a third-year guy his contract holds significant value, and could be a nice pick up for a rebuilding team that’s looking to add a moderately productive big-man on an affordable deal.

If they were to flip him they would probably need to find someone who offers the same kind of defensive contribution, as Nurkic is Denver’s fourth best rebounder (6.6 per game), their second best shot blocker (0.9 per game) and contributes their second best win share (0.7).

And defence is, after all, the Nuggets biggest problem right now.

Transitioning to a new identity

They’re currently 29th in the league in defensive rating (112.4), while their offense is 9th best (110.0). In terms of pace, Denver is right up there too, fifth best in the league (98.1), thanks largely to the motor of Emmanuel Mudiay and their willingness to shoot threes in transition.

In fact, the Nuggets currently take the 10th most threes in the NBA (27.2 per game) – something that would most likely change if they were to trade Gallinari and Chandler.

Actually, subtracting these two would inevitably have a negative impact on the offense, and it would be interesting to see how a guy like Mudiay would fare without them. He is currently logging just 4 assists per game, while scoring 12.1 points. Right now, he’s also taking 7.6 shots per game (while shooting 40 percent from the field) and 3.8 three point attempts ( while averaging 31 percent from deep).

If Denver is to succeed with this particular core it seems as if Mudiay is the key. And thus far he hasn’t exactly played like a lock.

To those who followed the young playmaker’s unique journey to the NBA (via China rather than college ball) that will probably come as no great surprise, as, while often ranked as the best guard in the 2015 Draft, nbadraft.net said he’s “struggled with his midrange and outside shooting, often off balance or struggles with timing to release the ball at the highest point of his jump”. They continued, he must “improve his confidence and consistency as a shooter … Still has a tendency to depend on the dribble too much, be careless with the ball and go for the highlight rather than settling for a more calculated decision”.

This still rings true, as Mudiay has a tendency to fire up shots at will, even when they’re not there. He turns the ball over too often and fails to find his team mates regularly enough, largely because he seems to have convinced himself he’s a scorer.

As Thursday proved, on this team he doesn’t have to be. He just needs to be smart, make good decisions and facilitate the offense by using his ability to get inside and find the open shooters around him. And, he has a perfect mentor in Jameer Nelson, as that’s exactly what he used to do for the Dwight Howard-era Orlando Magic.

Despite his current struggles, Mudiay has the potential to be extremely good, provided he can figure out his value to the cause (if he can’t, he could end up going the way of, say, Ty Lawson).

He and Jokic can be a huge threat in pick and roll/pop scenarios, especially if Denver continues to surround them with shooters. Even if they do trade Gallinari and Chandler, they still have Gary Harris and Will Barton, who are shooting 44 percent and 47 percent from the field respectively, and 39 percent from deep.

Long-term, Jamal Murray will likely complete the core Denver builds around, as he has really been a bright spot in this lost season.

Like the others, he needs time though. Which may actually not be such a hindrance to the Nuggets, as that’s exactly what general manager Tim Connelly needs to sort through in what’s become a crowded and mismatched rotation, salvaging the best parts.

Right now they have a good coach and a solid young core to build around, but the ghost of the Carmelo Anthony-era continues to linger, and it’s going to take something special to put it to bed.

Perhaps we saw the first signs of that on Thursday…

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